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Fertilizers Will Not Fix Africa’s Food Crisis

The widespread promotion of synthetic fertilizer as a solution to Africa’s food-security challenges is a flawed approach that has consistently failed to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition on the continent. It is time for policymakers and stakeholders to embrace a more transparent and evidence-based approach.

BERLIN/NAIROBI – The world is confronting an unprecedented food crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and worsening climate conditions. But the problem is most acute in Africa, where 61% of the population faced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2022. And at a moment when effective solutions are urgently needed, policymakers are once again coalescing around the misguided belief that increased use of mineral and synthetic fertilizer is the key to boosting agricultural productivity and ending hunger on the continent.

This approach can be traced back to the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for the Africa Green Revolution that African Union leaders endorsed in 2006. The goal was to reverse the continent’s poor yields by boosting fertilizer use from eight to 50 kilograms per hectare within a decade. Spearheading this effort was the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an initiative backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other major donors. Working closely with large agribusinesses like the Norwegian-based chemical company Yara, AGRA championed the idea that distributing synthetic nitrogen fertilizers would solve Africa’s agricultural challenges.

But this singular focus on synthetic fertilizer use has failed to address the complex realities of farming in Africa. A recent assessment of AGRA’s projects in Burkina Faso and Ghana found no evidence that providing chemical inputs and high-yield seeds resulted in increased production and higher incomes for smallholder farmers. Instead, many are now more vulnerable and indebted after coming to rely on expensive synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the prices of which soared following Russia’s invasion. These farmers have become locked in a cycle of dependency, while companies like Yara reap substantial profits.

Zambia is a good example. Despite being one of the largest consumers of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in Africa, the country has not experienced a corresponding reduction in hunger and malnutrition. The view that more fertilizer means less hunger fails to address the systemic barriers to food security, such as affordability, and exacerbates existing challenges, such as soil degradation.

Specifically, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers disrupt the delicate balance of the soil ecosystem – the very foundation of sustainable agriculture. These inputs have been shown to reduce the abundance and diversity of beneficial microorganisms, such as mycorrhizal fungi, which are essential for nutrient cycling and plant health. When these symbiotic relationships are disrupted, soil resilience and fertility decline. According to the World Bank, Africa is already estimated to be losing around 3% of GDP per year due to nutrient depletion and general soil degradation.

In addition to undermining crop productivity, and thus dealing a devastating blow to the livelihoods and food security of millions of smallholder farmers, excessive fertilizer use also has far-reaching environmental consequences. It contributes to nitrogen pollution in water bodies, causing biodiversity loss in aquatic systems and pushing the planet past safe limits for humans. Perhaps most worryingly, research indicates that the production and application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers accounts for roughly 2% of total global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

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As a result, chemical companies like Yara are switching to “green fertilizers,” which are produced using hydrogen derived from renewable-energy sources, rather than fossil fuel-based inputs. This allows them to continue advocating for the use of synthetic fertilizers as a solution to food insecurity in Africa (and, by extension, maintaining and expanding the market for their products), even as research points to the shortcomings of such an approach.

It is true that using green hydrogen to produce fertilizer can mitigate GHG emissions. But while the production process may be less carbon-intensive, it is still highly energy-intensive. And applying fertilizer can release huge surges of nitrous oxide – a potent GHG – into the atmosphere, and can still cause soil degradation and water pollution, regardless of how it is produced. By promoting “green fertilizer” as a panacea, the industry is engaging in greenwashing – using the veneer of sustainability to protect its interests.

This week, the AU’s Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit in Nairobi will address soil degradation and food insecurity. The involvement of industry giants like Yara and organizations like AGRA suggests continued adherence to a flawed model that has consistently failed to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, a concern shared by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, which represents more than 200 million stakeholders. But instead of focusing on boosting short-term soil fertility, substituting one chemical with the other, and thus endorsing the fertilizer industry’s self-serving narratives, the summit should consider longer-term goals, such as improving soil health and soil life, strengthening the resilience of farming communities, and ensuring the sustainability of food systems.

Productivity can be maintained without industrial nitrogen fertilizers, as shown in long-term trials across Africa. Alternatives include diversifying cropping systems, producing organic fertilizer, and planting legumes. Policymakers and stakeholders must move beyond the simplistic promotion of synthetic fertilizers, even those labeled as “green,” and embrace a more transparent and evidence-based approach. Only then can we truly address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition in Africa and around the world.